Judaism and Pride

Judaism and Pride

12 Aug 2016

By Esther Hugenholtz

Regardless of what the weather will be next Sunday, there will be plenty of rainbows.

I’ve attended my fair share of LGBT Pride marches in the past.

I am, after all, from Amsterdam, and the annual ‘Canal Pride’ has become a popular, family-friendly cultural event. The Dutch Canal Pride would always be held on Saturdays, so it was my minhag (personal custom) to attend shul in the morning and then visit my gay friends in the centre of town in the afternoon to watch the myriad of colourful boats pass by. The atmosphere was always congenial: plenty of good will and cheer and copious amounts of Dutch beer. People from all generations, sexual orientations and backgrounds would congregate on Amsterdam’s picturesque canals to watch the water-borne parade.

For all my life, I’ve been a staunch defender of LGBT rights, or as we call it nowadays, an ‘ally’.

As a young teen, I was (and still am) a big fan of the British symphonic rock-band Queen and an admirer of its lead singer, Freddie Mercury. When Freddie came out as bisexual as well as having a diagnosis of HIV in 1991, I only felt admiration and empathy for the late singer. My teenage heart was broken when he passed away soon after.

My secular-humanist values were always clear: to accept, welcome and celebrate the dazzling continuum of human love and identity, be it gay, bi or straight, cisgendered, transgender or questioning.

In a world where love seems a more precious commodity than callousness, it intuitively made more sense – rationally, emotionally, morally – to skew towards inclusivity.

There was nothing to suggest in my life that I ought to see the question of sexual and gender identity in any different way.

And then there is the prickly question of religion.

In the Jewish tradition, there are two verses in the Torah that proscribe sexual relations between men, both from the Book of Leviticus, the Torat Cohanim, the ‘Priestly Law’ that deals with purity and taboo, boundaries and liminality.

Leviticus 18:22 states, embedded between a series of sexual taboos, that

‘v’et zachar lo tishkav, mishkevei isha to’evah hi’ – ‘and with a male you shall not lie as in the lyings of a woman, it is a taboo.’

Leviticus 20:13 reformulates the prohibition including its consequence:

‘v’ish asher yishkav et zachar mishkevei ishah, to’evah asu sheneihem, mot yamutu, dameihem bam’ – ‘And if a man lies with a male in the lyings of a woman, they have committed a taboo between them, surely they shall die and their blood shall be upon them.’

I’ve chosen to translate the verses in an intentionally literal way, even if that makes them harder to understand. This lack of clarity is significant and many a scholar have broken their teeth on what these verses actually mean and what they actually prohibit. Ultimately, penetrating the layers of culture and history to find the deeper meaning of the verse is as much an ideological as it is an intellectual exercise.

On both sides of the spectrum, people find ways to justify, modify or condemn the verses.

A fundamentalist reading relies on the inerrancy of the text: homosexual behaviour is sinful, end of discussion.

A progressive reading parses the text differently, engaging in a Talmudic ‘narrowing of the scope’: is this prohibition given in the context of power differentials between men? In the context of upholding sexual taboos to guarantee ethno-religious cohesion? And can we honestly say that this verse refers to the consensual, loving same-sex relationships we see today?

I like all of these interpretations a great deal but ultimately, there’s a higher question of hermeneutics at play here:

What is our sacred intention for reading holy writ?

How do we bring God into this?

When asked for how we can ‘prove’ the existence of God, I immediately say we cannot.

From a scientific standpoint, there’s no shred of evidence to prove or disprove the existence of a Supreme Being who engages in a loving, covenantal encounter with humanity. However, I also argue that the only ‘proof’ of God’s existence in my life is the transformative power of the Divine to shape me into a kinder, more compassionate, more loving human being. It is through reflection and inner transformation through the lens of the Torah and the Jewish tradition, that I feel Divine intimacy and through my actions and ethical choices that I manifest godliness.

So too, I believe, hermeneutics and interpretations notwithstanding, that LGBT inclusion is not just a humanistic value or a human right, but a Divine calling.

As a Progressive rabbi, I chose to boldly hold the text accountable to its own criteria of love, grace and compassion and conclude that we must transcend the prohibitions of Leviticus in order to embrace the other, more dominant voice of Leviticus in chapter 19, wedged between the two chapters that proscribe male homosexual acts.

‘V’ahavta la’erecha kamocha’ – ‘you shall love your fellow as yourself’.

I look forward to taking part in my local Pride this year, as I usually do. But this time, there’s a difference. I’ll be marching not just as a human being, not just as a religious Jew, but as a rabbi who wholeheartedly believes in the sanctity of both her Torah and LGBT love. It may place me at odds with those sectors of the religious world who interpret and believe differently but to deny my authentic voice and my theological methodology would be to fracture my deep and abiding relationship to God and Torah.

I’m out and proud this year, as a rabbinic LGBT ally. ‘Love your fellow as yourself’, Leviticus 19:18. The verse ends, after all, with the most compelling argument of all: ‘ for I am the Eternal’.

Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

Image credit: Sara Stojkovic

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